By Turner Blaufuss
On National Signing Day in early February, Joseph Putu couldn’t keep a smile off his face. After two years of playing cornerback for the North Dakota State College of Science Wildcats, Putu finally made his dream a reality, signing his National Letter of Intent to officially become a University of Florida Gator.
“It’s like a dream come true. I always wanted to play for the Gators and I especially always wanted to play in the (Southeastern Conference),” Putu said in an interview prior to signing. “That’s every kid’s dream. Every kid talks about playing Division I football and I’m going to play in the biggest division out there in college football (SEC).”
Putu, who is from Providence Rhode Island, has been a Florida fan since he was a kid and said it all started when he’d use the Gators in the “NCAA Football” video games. Putu and his best friend (who would use the Florida State Seminoles) frequently clashed in a battle for the Florida Cup. Putu will now have a chance to take on the ‘Noles for the real rivalry trophy.
Putu’s dream school didn’t come knocking right away.
“My first offer was Tennessee State and every week it would move up by conference. The following week it was the USA Conference, then it was the MAC conference and that’s when Arkansas came in and offered,” Putu said.
Arkansas was the first SEC school to recruit Putu and despite interest from UCLA, Iowa State, Texas A&M and Ohio State, it looked like Putu was ready to become a Razorback.
Enter Florida Defensive Coordinator Geoff Collins. The Gator coach flew to Wahpeton after seeing the Wildcat star’s highlight video and Collins left a big impression on Putu.
“They were late to jump in because my highlight video wasn’t really out yet. The defensive coordinator came down here and he’s got swag,” Putu said with a laugh. “He was talking about the Gators and ‘DBU’ and I just fell in love even more.”
For those who don’t know, “DBU” stands for Defensive Back University, which is a title Florida has earned by fielding one of the country’s best secondaries year after year. It’s a perfect fit for a star cornerback, but that wasn’t the only reason Florida was Putu’s best option.
“Their reputation for ‘DBU’ is one reason he wanted to attend Florida, but it’s also one of the best schools academically for his major, which is sports marketing and sports management,” NDSCS coach Merle Johnson said. “That’s a big thing for him, to get into a program like that.”
Florida’s sports management program ranks No. 1 in the country and Putu made it possible for him to attend by working hard in school, after arriving in Wahpeton as a below-average student. His work ethic in the classroom is the same attitude he brings to every other aspect of his life as well.
“(Putu’s) work ethic is across the board. It’s not just football. He went from being a below-average student to a 3-point GPA. He’s still working at keeping that GPA and he holds down at least two, sometimes three jobs,” Johnson said. “I think that work ethic is ingrained across his whole spirit.”
Johnson said how hard Putu is willing to work is what separates him from other players across the country.
“I’m a hard-working person. If I want something, I’m going to go get it,” Putu said. “The good thing about (the SEC) is they’re a passing conference, so every week I’m going to have to put the work in at practice and learn from my teammates who have been there for two years.”
Putu’s ability to force turnovers is another major factor to his success. When you see him come down with an interception, it’s not too surprising to hear he was a wide receiver his first few weeks at NDSCS.
“(Putu’s) ball skills have a lot to do with his defensive-back ability. We moved him to defense, because there was a need and we had been told by his high school coach that he’s a better defensive player than an offensive player,” Johnson said. “We wanted him to play where he wanted to be and that was at receiver. He gained some experiences as a receiver and then when he moved over to DB his skills catching the ball helped him move forward from there.”
The switch to defense paid off and Putu ended his career as a Wildcat with 10 interceptions, eight fumbles recovered and five forced fumbles. This season Putu was named an NJCAA All-American while also earning Western Division MCAC First Team and NJCAA All-Region XIII honors.
Right now Putu’s future teammates are getting ready for the season with spring ball and the NDSCS transfer’s mind is on his first game in The Swamp. Putu’s next dream is making it to the NFL and maybe the former Wildcat will add his name to the long list of successful Florida defensive backs. One thing’s for certain – he’ll be ready to put the work in.
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